Text by James Stewart / Photos Tim E White
It’s as the sky off Stø bruises to charcoal grey and the snow comes stinging across the Norwegian Sea that Kyrre Brun begins to enjoy himself. The fisherman had barely had a nibble inshore. Now, a mile or so off the Lofoten Islands, the cod have begun to bite. Within 10 minutes of a lure being dropped 140m to the seabed, three arm-length mottled-green fish lie on the sole of our lightweight RIB vessel.
“Nothing compares to fishing,” Brun says with a twinkle, his wet hands scarlet from the biting cold. “And here we are so lucky – we have the Gulf Stream and the Skrei. One follows the other.”
Over summer Brun runs nature and fishing trips as Stø Safari. Yet the winter cod quota is what he lives for – the 50 tonnes of fish he is permitted to catch on a 2,000-hook line from his fishing boat, not the two rods and inflatable dinghy he keeps for tourists. His rod arcs suddenly. “Ooopa! Heavy and fighting – this is definitely Skrei.”
In broad terms, Skrei (pronounced “skray”) is the Atlantic cod that migrates from the Barents Sea to spawn in the cold nutrient-rich waters off the Lofoten Islands from late January to late April. Aged five to seven years, these are prime teenage fish: muscular, fighting-fit.
Cod has always ranked alongside bread as a staff of life in western Europe. It was cod that took English fisherman to Iceland in the 1400s, and it was salted cod that fuelled the Spanish and Portuguese empires. So central is it to European narratives that the Basques, the great fishermen of medieval Europe, tell a folktale that a codfish gave them their language.
The trouble is that campaigning TV series by the likes of British chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, as much as recurring wrangles over EU quotas, have highlighted the speed at which stocks are diminishing. We’re led to believe we shouldn’t really eat cod at all.
But unlike most cod, Skrei stocks are up and the Norwegian Seafood Council has stepped up its promotion of the fish as a sustainable alternative. Norwegians have always prized it – a source of protein and vitamin D, as much as comfort food in mid-winter. Now their seafood council, which registered Skrei as a trademark in 2006, hopes the rest of us will catch on.
“Skrei is the best cod I’ve ever tasted,” says Claus Meyer, co-founder of Copenhagen’s world-beating Noma restaurant, and Skrei has taken on a special status in New Nordic cuisine. Oslo’s Maaemo restaurant serves Skrei from Lofoten with burnt onions.
Michel Roux Jr, owner-chef of Le Gavroche, in London, is also impressed. The Michelin-starred restaurant has served Skrei since 2011. “It’s fantastic: glistening, beautiful cod that’s the freshest I’ve seen for a long time,” Roux says. “It breaks into beautiful, translucent flakes, which is always a sign of quality. I’ll indicate that it’s Skrei on the menu this year because I think awareness is growing.”
It seems so. Direct Seafoods, the UK’s largest fish supplier which names Harrods among its clients, says Skrei sales rose from £12,000 (NOK121,000) in 2012 to £150,000 (NOK1.5m) last year. Organic and natural foods retailer Whole Foods Market reports its figures up by 888 per cent.
Behind this surge, suggests Mitch Tonks of Dartmouth’s award-winning restaurant The Seahorse, in Devon, south-west England, is not just superb quality but “an absolute guarantee of sustainability”.
That sounds improbable given the usual apocalyptic prophecies for cod stocks. However, careful Norwegian husbandry – minimum price guarantees for fishermen and a strict ban on discards since 1987, enforced by the navy as much as a pricing system that provides little incentive for fishermen to exceed catch-quotas – means Skrei are on the up in the north-east Atlantic. Current cod stocks are estimated at 3.5 million tonnes. This despite last year’s record quota of 1 million tonnes, itself a 33 per cent rise on that for 2012, almost all of which was split equally between Norway and Russia. By way of comparison, in 2013, the total allowable catch of North Sea cod was 10,311 tonnes.
Norwegian fish management may be so successful because Skrei is more than a fish in the Lofoten Islands. It is a way of life.
Islanders have relied on Skrei at least since the Vikings commercialised dried salt cod, explains Espen Klaevik-Pettersen, a local fisherman before he became project manager of the Norwegian Seafood Council. “If it weren’t for the migration of Skrei these villages simply wouldn’t be here. My grandfather would make grace before eating and say very simply: ‘We thank God for the Skrei and that it comes to us.’”
In the 17th century, Norwegian pastor-poet Petter Dass wrote: “And should You, Lord, foreshorten your hand/ and close the Skrei-cod and fish off from Land/ We would then be destitute.”
You can understand how Skrei, a name that roughly translates as “wanderer” with an added sense of rapid movement en masse, might seem a divine gift. For most of the year, this shoulder of Norway – a bleakly beautiful archipelago of vertical mountains and rust-red clapperboard villages roughly 240km within the Arctic Circle – is quiet. Then in the depths of winter hundreds of thousands of cod appear offshore literally overnight.
Children may no longer run through villages to announce the bonanza (Twitter or Facebook is probably more efficient); and the number of Norwegian fishermen may have fallen from 150,000 in the early 1900s, when you could walk across Lofoten harbours on boats, to around 12,000. Yet even today, whole villages still spring into action when the Skrei comes.
There’s a rush on when I visit the Gunnar Klo processing plant in Myre, the islands’ principal fishing harbour. Caked in snow from the fishing grounds, a boat has tied up to the wharf and forklift trucks are whizzing vats slopping with fish to conveyor belts at brutal speed. Because fish trademarked Skrei is not just migratory cod. To receive a quality graded council tag through its fins, it must go from the water – via line or gillnet – to delivery crate within 12 hours without a blemish.
When 100,000kg of fish are landed daily in Skrei season, it’s little wonder staff numbers double. Men chop, women fillet (men struggle to fillet and chat simultaneously, apparently) and local children slice tongues from cod heads. Scratching his neck with a bloodied knife beside a huge tray of decapitated heads, 15-year-old Tobias says that on a good day after school he makes around NOK2,000 from tongues; around NOK100,000 a season. The money will pay for a motorbike but he aims to be a fishing boat captain.
And so Skrei culture passes to the next generation.
“My father was a Skrei fisherman, my mother worked in the filleting hall and I was cutting tongues from the age of five,” recalls Stø-born production manager Jan-Roger Knutsen. The youngest employee this year is about six, he adds. Workers have to be tough; to not mind the cold (there’s no heating despite freezing temperatures) and gore. But despite 18-hour shifts and a market depressed by economic woes in Spain and Portugal, Knutsen says the Skrei season remains fantastic. “This is when the money is made, so we work hard. Afterwards we sleep, eat and drink, and the women go back home to look after the kids. It’s a part of our culture.”
It’s soon evident that it’s not only those directly involved in the fishing industry in Myre that take Skrei seriously. When the first fish arrive, Arne Antonsen walks to the docks. “I put my knife into a fillet and if it doesn’t tremble I won’t eat it; it has to be that fresh.” From fish that meets such exacting standards, his wife Rigmor prepares a meal for friends to celebrate the new season. “You cannot eat Skrei alone,” Arne explains simply.
Steaming on the table when I enter his home is mølje: literally, a “mixture” of Skrei to make a Norwegian expat moist-eyed. Like nose-to-tail consumption of premium meat, there is almost no part of Skrei that a good Norse chef will not prepare. The snow-white fillets are the prize; boiled, fried or baked, their flakes flavoured by filigrees of fat which melt upon cooking. But in addition the liver goes into a stew eaten with new potatoes. Roe is lightly fried, as are those tongues (simultaneously crisp and gelatinous in case you’re wondering).
Norwegians tuck with gusto into Skrei cheeks, loins and lips, all washed down with fiery tots of aquavit. Go to small harbours and you will find Skrei heads destined for African soups as well as splayed fillets drying in the Arctic wind.
You cannot find better, fresher fish than this, Arne says, as Rigmor refills plates. There’s a moment’s reverential pause. A few kilometres from our table, fishermen will be resetting Skrei lines in the 50-fathom seas. Boats bound for harbour will be sailing low in the water beneath the weight of their catch. Then we dig in.